Hill, Lofti and Siegert win inaugural James Berry Poetry Prize

Hill, Lofti and Siegert win inaugural James Berry Poetry Prize

Kaycee Hill, Marjorie Lotfi and Yvette Siegert (pictured top) have won the inaugural James Berry Poetry Prize for young or emerging Black and minority ethnic poets.

The winners were announced at an online event on 28th October and they will each receive year-long mentoring plus £1,000 and publication of their debut book-length collections with Bloodaxe in 2023. The new award is organised by Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts (NCLA) with Bloodaxe Books, and supported by special funding from Arts Council England.

Judge Theresa Muñoz said: "The judging process saw us whittle down nearly 100 entries to a shortlist of seven poets including three equal winners whose voices will become even louder and stronger due to the expert mentoring and publication of debut collections made possible by the prize.

“The range of poetry we encountered was inspirational. Portfolios included poems set in all corners of the globe which explored issues of language, family, prejudice, political warfare, exile and imprisonment. I am proud that the James Berry Poetry Prize creates new opportunities for poets in the UK.”

Hill (below right) is the youngest of the three winners, for her work "Day Visit at HMP Erlestoke". She said winning the prize was "a huge feat and honour", adding: “When I graduated last year we were at the height of lockdown and any opportunities I had hoped for had been completely stoppered – as an emerging voice I was desperate to be heard, and winning the James Berry Prize is testament to that.

“I feel so lucky to be involved in such a wonderful grassroots prize that will change my life completely, this is such a monumental moment for me."

Lofti (below left) was commended for her poem "Headlamps" about fleeing Iran during the revolution. She said she "can't quite believe" she's won the prize and was "thrilled" to have the chance of poetry mentorship. “I'm particularly excited to dive back into poems exploring the meaning of home and belonging, subjects so many of us grapple with. And who wouldn’t be absolutely over the moon at the prospect of being published by Bloodaxe?” she said. 

Siegert was congratulated for her poem "The Great Conjunction" which is a love song to a new child. She said: "Shortly after my husband and I arrived in the UK, we attended a reading at the Lit & Phil, and I couldn't believe a place like this existed. That weekend visit to Newcastle was the first time that I began to feel 'at home' in England – the fog and the books and the light: I've never experienced that feeling anywhere else – so it seems especially fitting that the prize should be tied to the poetry community of this city.

“I wish circumstances permitted me to meet you and the other judges in person to express how grateful I am to NCLA and Bloodaxe – for creating this prize, for reading our work. This opportunity is life-changing. Thank you.” 

The other poets on the shortlist of seven were Dzifa Benson, Asmaa Jama, Minying Huang and Kim Squirrell.

The prize is part of an inclusivity project devised for Bloodaxe by Nathalie Teitler with Booker Prize-winner Bernardine Evaristo. It is named in honour of James Berry, one of the first Black writers in Britain to receive wider recognition. 

The winners will be invited back to launch their books in person in Newcastle when they are published, as well as being shown Berry’s manuscripts and correspondence relating to his Bloodaxe titles in the Bloodaxe Archive at Newcastle University. The winners and shortlisted poets will also receive copies of James Berry’s books from Bloodaxe.

Sinéad Morrissey, prize judge and professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University, said: “The prize builds on the vital partnership already in place between Newcastle University and Bloodaxe Books: one of the most important publishers of poetry in the world. The shared commitment by NCLA and Bloodaxe to help diversify UK poetry through increased publication and performance opportunities will be greatly strengthened by the James Berry Poetry Prize, which will mentor and support three talented poets from underrepresented communities and help to change the landscape of UK poetry for generations to come.”

Neil Astley, founder and editor of Bloodaxe Books and a prize judge, said: “We are delighted to work with the NCLA on the James Berry Poetry Prize, the first award which offers both mentoring and first book publication not just to one but three emerging BAME poets. We also benefit greatly from having experienced poets and educationalists of the calibre of Mona Arshi, Malika Booker, Mimi Khalvati, Theresa Muñoz and Jacob Sam-La Rose as mentors or judges.”